Jaylon Smith becomes the first Notre Dame freshman linebacker to start a season opener since 1995.
NOTRE DAME — For the first time in 18 years, a true freshman linebacker will start in Notre Dame’s season-opening game.
Fort Wayne Bishop Luers product Jaylon Smith was named Notre Dame’s starting “Cat” outside linebacker, head coach Brian Kelly announced Tuesday, Aug. 27.
That announcement alone isn’t altogether shocking. The prognosis from preseason camp showed that Smith was everything his Rivals’ five-star, No. 1 outside linebacker rating promised to be.
Still, Smith, who won the 2012 Butkus Award for top high school linebacker in the country, is in rare company. He becomes the first freshman linebacker to start in Notre Dame’s season opener since Kory Minor in 1995.
Listen to coaches and teammates speak about Smith, and it’s not hard to imagine why.
“He plays so well in space,” Kelly said. “Very smart player, plays instinctively. I think the one thing that Jaylon has done as well as a lot of freshmen that I’ve been around, he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s a guy that comes back the next day, and he can eradicate the same mistake twice, and that’s a hallmark of a guy that’s going to play a lot of football for us.”
Doubtless, it isn’t the way Smith likely pictured getting his first collegiate start, surging up the depth chart on the tail of senior Danny Spond’s retirement from football due to chronic migraine issues. Smith swiftly moved up to the first-team defense, surpassing junior Ben Councell in the waning days of fall camp.
“He had to work for it,” Kelly said of Smith. “It was Danny Spond, it was Councell and it was Jaylon Smith. It didn’t start the other way around. He was No. 3 on the depth chart when they ran out there, even though there wasn’t a depth chart posted. He didn’t go with the first group. Danny Spond was with the first, Councell was second, and Jaylon was third, and he went out and he did his job.”
Councell, a veteran who played backup in 12 games last year, will still see the field plenty as Smith gets a feel for the college game. Not that he’ll need much time to adapt.
Smith, along with the rest of the freshmen class, has been kept at an arms-length distance from reporters throughout fall camp. But his teammates have provided plenty of positive feedback, and not just the standard “he works hard every day” fare.
“He’s a very, very bright kid,” safety Matthias Farley said. “He’s eager to make an impact wherever it may be on the field. He picks things up a lot faster than guys normally do. ... Usually you can spy a freshman out there, trying to feel their way though things, but he goes 100 mph no matter what, so it’s fun to watch him play.”
When Smith arrived on campus this summer, he asked senior inside linebacker Dan Fox — who will be starting alongside Smith on Saturday — to study film together.
“So we get in the film room, and he’s saying some things that took me a little while to pick up on and he knew right away, so I was impressed by his knowledge of the game,” Fox said.
Smith will be joined by a handful of other first-time starters on Saturday.
Senior safety Austin Collinsworth won the position battle over sophomore Elijah Shumate, though Collinsworth doesn’t necessarily have the job for the rest of the season.
“It’s a 1A, 1B situation,” Kelly said. “Depending on where we are in the game, down and distance, a lot of those factors will be involved. I think you’ve got to look at both of those guys playing an equal amount of football.”
Sophomore Ronnie Stanley will start at right tackle, with senior Christian Lombard shuffling to right guard. Freshman Steve Elmer is listed behind Stanley, but Kelly expects both to play on Saturday.
“If you were to ask us today, Ronnie would start there, but that’s a very fluid situation,” Kelly said. “We have great confidence that Steve Elmer could go in there and start for us. I think you should keep an eye on both guys playing tackle.”
Elmer joins receivers Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, left tackle Hunter Bivin, defensive end Isaac Rochell and cornerback Cole Luke as true freshmen in Notre Dame’s two-deep.